ACC Expands North and West: Can the Conference Overcome Demographics?

ACC Expands North and West: Can the Conference Overcome Demographics?

I guess we could say Tobacco Road now intersects with Broadway – as earlier this week the conference that was made famous in places like a smoke-filled Reynolds Coliseum, a burg named Greensboro and a tiny little gym simply known as “Cameron” officially ushered in its new era by ringing the closing bell of the NASDAQ exchange. 

The showy appearance in the Big Apple was the ACC’s way of officially welcoming in Syracuse, Pitt, and to some extent Notre Dame. It was also the league’s unofficial way of saying welcome to the new ACC and the new landscape of college sports. The conference’s two biggest stars, Coach K and Roy Williams, strangely had prior obligations – so Commissioner John Swofford was joined by Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, former Pitt star Larry Fitzgerald. Oh, did I mention they are all football guys? 

Football? What in the name of Christian Laettner’s buzzer beaters is going on here?

What’s going on is a basketball rich conference full of private schools and medium-sized state universities is trying desperately to cling to relevance in a universe that is becoming more and more dominated by mega “university ofs” and their gargantuan football programs. Specifically, the ACC is trying not to be run slap out of town by the SEC. With the University of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kentucky – and with LSU certainly being the uinversity of Lousiana, the SEC fills massive stadia and millions of television screens each week with unmatched pagentry and optics, while their coffers get stuffed with revenues from ticket sales in the 70 to 100 thousand range. 

Every SEC football program looks, sounds and feels “big time,” even when they are not. This is true in the Big Ten to a degree as well. Tennessee is at a low ebb, and yet, there’s 106 thousand in Neyland every Saturday. South Carolina is hardly tradition rich, yet one visit to Williams Brice at night, and you’ll understand why that will probably change. I wont’ even mention Baton Rouge after dark, game day in Tuscaloosa, the Swamp – or between the Hedges. Even Vandy, the SEC’s only private school, fills their stadium. In the ACC, only Clemson and Florida State – and maybe Virginia Tech, have big time atmospheres. This is obvious on TV.

Yes, the SEC is on an amazing string of football championships, but there are forces more powerful and permanent at play. I refer to the irresistible reality of demographics. All of these venues make for great TV, which makes for a lot of ESPN love, which helps great recruiting, which leads to more success and more great TV and more great recruiting – and so on. To be clear, I am not discounting the traditions and the rivalries, merely including those dynamics as part of the demographic equation, including being the university of certain states that happen to love football. 

Meanwhile, the ACC has tiny Duke, Wake, BC and Miami. Yes, Miami is a small private school. They do ironically have a smattering of that university of cache thanks to their name, but in trendy South Beach, if you aren’t winning big time it doesn’t matter. Most ACC football injuries are from TV camera men bending to odd angles to hide the empty seats at Miami and Duke. Even their university ofs – North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland – lack the stadiums and the massive fan bases enjoyed by the bigs in the SEC and the Big Ten. And Maryland is bolting to the Big Ten. (Awful move, but that’s another story). 

Swofford is a talented commissioner and a visionary, and he realizes this. The conferences most valuable asset for the past two decades has been the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry, which is huge, but this is a football universe. Knowing this, Swofford added Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech years ago – and all were powers at the time. The problem is, Miami has tanked, Bobby Bowden got old, and Beamer is getting older. And oh, those programs were also seen in places like Durham and Winston Salem, and that hurt them as well. The move has been a mild success, but it has not propelled the ACC to the top per the blue print. Meanwhile, the SEC has gone off the charts, and the Big Ten, Big 12 and PAC-12 are on the move. All are full of university ofs.

So now Swofford and the league have been proactive again. He has added Syracuse, Pitt, and, in all sports but football, Notre Dame. Lousville is on the way in a year. The problem is, Syracuse is also a smallish private school, and even Pitt is quasi-private, and certainly is not even the favorite Pennsylvania team in their own hometown. Louisville is a great addition, but even at the high point in school history as they are, the Cards are obviously second fiddle in their home state from a fan support standpoint. 

Yes, Swofford has added television markets and negotiated what is supposed to be a monster new deal. It’s probably the best that could be done. Yet the conference’s combined fan base is still tiny compared to that of the SEC and three other leagues. That’s an unhappy reality that no one can overcome, and no one talks about.

As an example, people like to speak of Duke basketball in terms of a New York Yankee type “empire.” That’s absurd. Duke is tiny and their fan base is tiny, and they defy gravity every year they stay relevant. There’s a reason they keep Cameron small. The ACC is much the same way overall too, and Swofford knows it. He’s trying to defy gravity with new teams and big TV contracts. I think he’s done a good job. I’m just not sure it’s good enough to overcome demographics.